January 04, 2015

Research Roundup: Experimental Ebola vaccines and treatments, HIV prevention research, and an 18-year high in drug approvals

Senior Program Assistant

In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.

The Independent examined what’s known about the effectiveness of an experimental Ebola treatment involving blood transfusions from survivors of the virus to current patients. The treatment—known as passive immunotherapy—was first tested by doctors in 1995 during an outbreak in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of the eight patients who received blood transfusions, only one died, while the rest recovered completely, a 12.5 percent mortality rate during an epidemic with an 80 percent mortality rate. While some researchers argue these results make a case for wider use of passive immunotherapy, others note that very little is known about the efficacy and safety of the treatment, particularly in the current epidemic.

The race to develop an Ebola vaccine is gaining momentum. The results from the first African trials of an Ebola vaccine—which ended in 2010—were published last week. The US National Institutes of Health had used knowledge gained from these trials to develop a more potent vaccine candidate, which recently completed Phase 1 trials and will begin Phase 2 trials in West Africa early this year. Another vaccine candidate, developed by NewLinks Genetics Corp and Merck & Co., is undergoing trials in Geneva and has been granted US$30 million from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for further testing.

Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, highlights some of the advancements in HIV prevention research that will be forthcoming this year. In the first quarter of the year, results from the FACTS001 study—which is looking at the effectiveness of tenofovir antiviral gel in preventing HIV transmission before and after sex—will be announced. Results from two other microbicides trials are also expected to be released in late 2015 or early 2016. This year, an AIDS vaccine trial will begin in South Africa which will follow up on 2009 vaccine trial in Thailand which demonstrated some level of protection against HIV.

It was a strong year from drug approvals at the US Food and Drug Administration. The agency approved 41 new drugs in 2014, a 52 percent increase from the 27 approved in 2013, and the highest count since 1996. Approximately 40 percent of the new medicines approved were for rare diseases, which highlights the industry’s focus on this research area for which the competition is limited and the cost per patient is high.

Kat Kelley is GHTC's Senior Program Assistant.